Opinion

Our have-nots hope Rishi Sunak will be a shining knight

Big Issue founder John Bird hopes the new PM can help those with the least through the difficult times we're facing

1930s London

Photo: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

A day in the life of an observer: I was walking to my station as I do most nights I’m in London. The shops were packed, and a general bonhomie was much in evidence. I used the toilet in a crowded pub and cut my way through the loud talking and carried on my walking. I could not see or hear of any evidence that a new prime minister had been elected. All I saw was bulging bags of clothing bought in expensive shops, people queueing up to get into restaurants. 

Something, though, was not happening. It was always thus, it seemed. It was crazy, when I had just left Parliament and all the talk was about a new boy on the block. A knight in shining armour had descended to keep the show on the road. And here he was ignored by the after-work workers freed from their computers and selling jobs, from their email sendings – or whatever passes for work these days. The knight was also ignored by the West End purchasers, who in their hundreds nearly bumped into each other, phone watching, as they carried their bags of Asiatic-made clobber. 

What a palaver, I felt, as I made my way across the West End to my station to get my country train. But where was the big fear of the impending inflation-inspired collapse of prosperity that has been the subject of tortuous hours of TV and page after page of papers, with feverish expert media conversation? 

It was as if the now-free London Evening Standard was having to be the conscience of the London-using people, reminding all of the dire circumstances that we are passing through. Likewise the daily papers and the radio and the TV top-ups. 

The media frenzy, the impassioned call for fear. And among it all thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of milling and mulling people passing through some vast world of consuming. It was such a contrast between the fun of a large city engaged in trading dreams and distractions and my own earlier conversations with political doomsayers: for once I had to accept the veracity of what they were saying. For we are in a pickle. People are suffering. Hunger stalks the land. But the commerce of joy goes on. 

One conversation I had before I left Parliament was with an ex-Tory minister who, surprisingly, said that what is in evidence now, the energy companies feasting etc, showed that selfishness is winning out. And a strong Labour victory would sober the blighters up; for they deserve a good drubbing.  I made my train and disappeared into the hinterlands. What could you make of the seeming indifference amongst many who just wanted to drink socially or purchase gear for their personal adornment? 

Interestingly it reminded me of the 1930s (not that I lived through them). I have been writing muchly about the West End of London and the big department stores there. In the 1930s my uncle John Bird was a plumber in Selfridges on Oxford Street, just where it is now. His sister, my aunt Lilly, worked in accounts there as a bookkeeper. Another uncle was a chauffeur for the rich of Park Lane, another uncle off safe from the Depression, in the army. 

The young Birds, though, lived a bus ride from this plenty in what was considered the worst slum in London, and which many Labour MPs loved to tour in those hungry times – a bus ride from Parliament. The contrast was enormous. Notting Hill was like a remnant of a vanquished civilisation; but life went on there. 

Will the shining knight be able to reverse the threat of millions falling into poverty? Will he be able to strengthen the financial markets? Will he be able to see off the inflationary crisis by offering the most generous safety nets possible, so we don’t have mass evictions and mass hunger? 

What is different from the 1930s now is the instability brought on by inflation and high rental costs. The UK in the 1930s was a place of substandard housing. By the Second World War, 90 per cent of working-class housing was substandard, a degree away from derelict. Rents were cheap and living conditions appalling. 

Now we live in a highly geared, debt-laden world. Life and finance have little wiggle room. The 1930s seems almost like a distant dead civilisation. 

Let’s hope the knight doesn’t add to our financial insecurities. That he doesn’t allow the poorest among us to suffer the most in the irrational world we seem to have built over the years since the 2008 bankers’ crisis. 

So, on the day the shining knight arrived in power, I traipsed through the West End and wondered how so much manufactured fun could spill out on every street. But London was not just some big dollop of fun. Prices were already cutting deep into the lives of millions. And as my ex-Tory minister said to me as a passing comment, “Now is the time for those with the broadest shoulders to take the biggest weight.” Meaning, I’m sure, those energy companies, and perhaps a Covid era-like return to a concept of sharing. Support must get to where it is needed most. 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.


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